7 Famous People in Mexican History

From Revolutionary Leaders to Revelatory Artists

Famous people in Mexican history: Hernán Cortés, Miguel Hidalgo, Frida Kahlo, Porfirio Díaz, Benito Juárez, Antonio López de Santa Anna, Pancho Villa

ThoughtCo / Melissa Ling

The history of Mexico is full of characters, from the legendarily inept politician Antonio López de Santa Anna to the tremendously talented yet tragic artist Frida Kahlo. Here are a few of the more interesting and well-known figures who left their indelible mark on the history of the great nation of Mexico.

Hernán Cortes

Portrait of Cortés at Museo del Prado

José Salomé Pina / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spanish conquistador who conquered native populations in the Caribbean before setting his sights on the Aztec Empire. Cortés landed on the Mexican mainland in 1519 with only 600 men. They marched inland, befriending disgruntled Aztecs in vassal states along the way. When they reached the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, Cortés was able to take the city without a battle. After capturing Emperor Montezuma, Cortés held the city— until his men eventually outraged the local population so greatly that they revolted. Cortés was able to retake the city in 1521 and this time, he was able to maintain his hold. Cortés served as the first Governor of New Spain and died a wealthy man.

Miguel Hidalgo

Miguel Hidalgo, siglo XIX, imagen tomada de: Jean Meyer, “Hidalgo”, en La antorcha encendida, México, Editorial Clío, 1996, p. 2.

Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

As a respected parish priest and valued member of his community, Father Miguel Hidalgo (1753-1811) was the last person anyone would have expected to kick off a revolution in Spanish colonial Mexico. Nevertheless, inside the facade of a dignified clergyman known for his command of complex Catholic theology beat the heart of a true revolutionary. On September 16, 1810, Hidalgo, who was by then in his fifties, took to the pulpit in the town of Dolores to inform his flock that he was taking up arms against the hated Spaniards and invited them to join him. Angry mobs turned into an irresistible army and before long, Hidalgo and his supporters were at the very gates of Mexico City. Hidalgo was captured and executed in 1811—but the revolution he inspired lived on. Today, many Mexicans regard him as the father (no pun intended) of their nation.

Antonio López de Santa Anna

Santa Anna in a Mexican military uniform

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876) joined the army during Mexico's War of Independence—the Spanish army, that is. Santa Anna eventually switched sides and over the following decades, he rose to prominence as a soldier and politician. Santa Anna would eventually be President of Mexico on no fewer than 11 occasions between 1833 and 1855. With a reputation for being both crooked and charismatic, the Mexican people loved him despite his legendary ineptitude on the field of battle. Santa Anna lost Texas to rebels in 1836, lost every major engagement in which he participated during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and in between, managed to lose a war to France in 1839. Still, Santa Anna was a dedicated Mexican who always answered the call when his people needed him—and sometimes when they didn't.

Benito Juarez

President Benito Pablo Juárez García

Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Legendary statesmen Benito Juarez (1806-1872) was a full-blooded Mexican Indian who initially spoke no Spanish and was born into grinding poverty. Juarez took full advantage of the educational opportunities that were offered to him, attending seminary school before entering into politics. In 1858, as the leader of the ultimately victorious liberal faction during the Reform War (1858 to 1861), he declared himself Mexico's President. After the French invaded Mexico in 1861, Juarez was removed from office. The French installed a European nobleman, Maximilian of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Juarez and his forces rallied against Maximilian, eventually driving the French out in 1867. Juarez ruled another five years, until his death in 1872. He is remembered for introducing many reforms, including curtailing church influence and for his efforts to modernize Mexican society.

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz

Aurelio Escobar Castellanos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) became a war hero during the French invasion of 1861, helping to defeat the invaders at the famous Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Diaz entered politics and followed the rising star of Benito Juarez, although the two men did not get along well personally. By 1876, Diaz had grown tired of trying to reach the Presidential palace via democratic means. That year, he entered Mexico City with an army and not surprisingly won the "election" he set up himself. Diaz ruled unchallenged for the next 35 years. During his reign, Mexico was greatly modernized, building railroads and infrastructure and developing industries and commerce that allowed the country to join the international community. However, since all of Mexico's wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, life for ordinary Mexicans had never been worse. The wealth disparity led to the Mexican Revolution, which exploded in 1910. By 1911, Diaz was ousted. He died in exile in 1915.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa as he appeared in the United States press during the Revolution.

Bain Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Pancho Villa (1878-1923) was a bandit, warlord, and one of the main protagonists of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Born Doroteo Arango in impoverished northern Mexico, Villa changed his name and joined a local bandit gang where he soon earned a reputation as a skilled horseman and a fearless mercenary. It wasn't long before Villa became the leader the pack his cutthroats gang. Although he was an outlaw, Villa had an idealistic streak and when Francisco I. Madero called for​ a revolution in 1910, he was among the first to answer. For the next 10 years, Villa fought against a succession of would-be rulers including Porfirio Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón. By 1920, the revolution had mostly quieted down and Villa retreated in semi-retirement to his ranch. His old enemies, however, fearful he might stage a comeback, assassinated him in 1923.

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

Guillermo Kahlo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist whose memorable paintings have earned her worldwide acclaim and something of a cult following. In addition to the fame Kahlo achieved in her lifetime, she was also known for being the wife of renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, although, in years since, her reputation has eclipsed his. Kahlo incorporated the vivid colors and signature imagery of traditional Mexican culture into her paintings. Unfortunately, she was not a prolific artist. Due to a childhood accident, she was in constant pain her whole life and produced a body of work that contained fewer than 150 complete pieces. Many of her best works are self-portraits that reflect her physical anguish as well as the torment she sometimes suffered during her troubled marriage to Rivera.